From Chapter One: Thinking
In Ireland, the Middle East, Somalia, Sri Lanka and countless other war-torn areas around the world, prejudice, religious intolerance, greed, and fear have erupted into violence that has taken the lives of millions. In America, the damage cawed by institutionalized racism is perhaps more subtle but no less devastating to the social fabric. Rich versus poor, black versus white, pro-life versus pro-choice, straight versus gayall are social, political, and economic conflicts fought under the banner of some ideology or deeply held belief. But given the divisive and destructive results, are these ideologies and beliefs rational, or mere rationalizations for otherwise unreasonable acts? How often, in fact, do we stop to think about what we believe? One of the major dilemmas we face both as individuals and as a society is simplistic thinkingor the failure to think at all. It isn't just a problem, it is the problem.
Given the imperfections of our society and the apparent downward spiral of spiritual and moral values in recent years, thinking has become a grave issue. It is more urgent nowperhaps more urgent than anything elsebecause it is the means by which we consider, decide, and act upon everything in our increasingly complex world. If we don't begin to think well, it's highly likely that we may end up killing ourselves.
In one way or another, each of my books has beensymbolically and substantivelya crusade against simplistic thinking I began The Road Less Traveled with the assertion that "life is difficult." In Further Along the Road Less Traveled, I added that "life is complex." Here, it can further be said that "there are no easy answers." And although I believe the route to finding answers is primarily through better thinking, even this is not as simple as it may seem.
Thinking is difficult. Thinking is complex. And thinking ismore than anything elsea process, with a course or direction, a lapse of time, and a series of steps or stages that lead to some result. To think well is a laborious, often painstaking process until one becomes accustomed to being "thoughtful." Since it is a process, the course or direction may not always be clear-cut. Not all the steps or stages are linear, nor are they always in the same sequence. Some are circular and overlap with others. Not everyone seeks to achieve the same result. Given all this, if we are to think well, we must be on guard against simplistic thinking in our approach to analyzing crucial issues and solving the problems of life.
Although people are different, an all-too-common flaw is that most tend to believe they somehow instinctively know how to think and to communicate. In reality, they usually do neither well because they are either too self-satisfied to examine their assumptions about thinking or too self absorbed to invest the time and energy to do so. As a result, it is impossible to tell why they think as they do or how they make their decisions. And when challenged, they show very little awareness ofor become easily frustrated bythe dynamics involved in truly thinking and communicating well.
Twice during my career as a lecturer, I gave an all-day seminar on thinking. At the beginning of each, I pointed out that most people think they already know how to think. At the conclusion of each, during a feedback session, someone said in sheer exasperation, "The subject is simply too large." Indeed, thinking isn't a topic that anyone can digest thoroughly in one sitting. Whole books can be (and have been) written about it. It is no surprise that many people resist the arduous efforts involved in continually monitoring and revising their thinking. And no surprise that by the end of the seminars most of the participants felt so overwhelmed by all that is really involved in thinking that they were either numbed or horrified. Needless to say, these were not among my more popular engagements. Yet if all the energy required to think seems troublesome, the lack of thinking causes far more trouble and conflict for ourselves as individuals and for the society in which we live.
Hamlet's often quoted "To be or not to be?" is one of life's ultimate existential questions. Another question gets to the heart of how we interpret that existence. I would paraphrase Shakespeare to ask, "To think or not to think?" That is the ultimate question in combating simplism. And at this point in human evolution, it may be the very equivalent of "To be or not to be?"
From my practice as a psychiatrist and my experiences and observations in general, I have become familiar with the common errors related to the failure to think well. One, of course, is simply not thinking. Another is making assumptions in thinking, through the use of one-dimensional logic, stereotypes, and labeling. Another problem is the belief that thinking and communication don't require much effort. Another is assuming that thinking is a waste of time, which is a particular factor in the quiet rage we experience around the failure to solve many social problems.
Leonard Hodgson wrote: "It is not through trust in our reason that we go wrong, but because through our sinfulness our reason is so imperfectly rational. The remedy is not the substitution of some other form of acquiring knowledge for rational apprehension; it is the education of our reason to be its true self." Although the language is somewhat misleading, since his book dates back over fifty years, Hodgson's words are relevant to the dilemma we face today. For "reason," I would substitute the word "thinking" and all that it implies. By "sinfulness," Hodgson was referring, I believe, to our combined "original" sins of laziness, fear, and pride, which limit us or prevent us from fulfilling the human potential. In referring to "the education of our reason to be its true self," Hodgson suggests that we should allow our true self to be whatever it's capable of, to rise to its fullest capacity. The point is not that we shouldn't trust our brain, specifically our frontal lobes. The point is that we don't use them enough. Because of our sins of laziness, fear, and pride, we don't put our brain to full use. We are faced with the task of educating ourselves to be fully human.
Copyright © 1997 by M. Scott Peck